From ............ Time magazine

September 23, 1996

pages 31-33


By RICHARD LACAYO Public-school teachers in Cleveland, Ohio, were getting ready to strike last week over work loads, salary and health-care issues. But at St. Adalbert's, a Catholic primary school on the city's tumbledown east side, it was business as usual. In a room full of first-graders, the rows of African-American boys were dressed in shirts and ties.

When principal Lydia Harris entered, they stood at attention to greet her in unison. In the hallway outside, second-grade girls were heading quietly to lunch, all dressed in plaid jumpers and saddle shoes. Outside there might be squalor and chaos. In here, it was a blast from the past. Principal Harris makes a funny observation, but a shrewd one, about why her well-ordered [Roman] Catholic school works. "We provide the same thing a gang provides: family, code, color, belonging and activity." And her gang is growing. Enrollment at St. Adalbert's increased by 41 special students this year, to 413, thanks to the most closely watched educational experiment in the country.

This month Cleveland becomes the first city in the nation to allow children from poor homes to attend private schools, including religious schools, using government money to cover most or all of the tuition. State-financed school-choice vouchers provide up to $2,250 a year to parents of 2,000 low-income children in kindergarten through third grade. The vouchers can be used to send the children either to a nonsectarian private school of the parents' choice or to a parochial school like St. Adalbert's. Cleveland took this controversial step across the church-state line out of desperation. As elsewhere in the U.S., many of its inner-city public schools are a physical and academic dead zone. In California, Colorado and Oregon, voters have turned down voucher initiatives that would extend school choice statewide because most suburban voters are not that unhappy with their public schools. So programs targeted at minority kids have become the new, more ambiguous school-choice battleground--one on which liberals don't always know which side to take.

For some poor children, the chance to go to private school could be a life saver. But vouchers provide opportunity for just a few of them while siphoning off tax dollars from the public system inflicted on the rest. "Just 5,000 out of 70,000 kids may be lucky enough to get a voucher," says Cleveland city councilman Roosevelt Coats. "Why should 5,000 benefit at the expense of 65,000?" The bleak answer comes from another city-council member, Fannie Lewis: "You save what you can." "There's a weariness with the persistence of the urban problem," says John Chubb, co- author of Politics, Markets & America's Schools, "a feeling that if an alternative really is out there, can it be so terrible to give it a try?" Like passengers on the Titanic who have just heard about a lifeboat raffle, low-income parents are the most excited about vouchers. Average household income for families participating in Cleveland's school-choice program is $6,597. When 6,500 students applied for the 2,000 grants, the city had to distribute them through a lottery. Sister Theresine Cregan recalls registration night last month at St. Ignatius, the parochial school where she serves as principal. "People came in weeping, they were so happy for this program." Anyone who is worried that vouchers could undermine public education has reason to weep too. The Cleveland plan has produced the first court decision in which a judge has refused to block payment of tax dollars to religious schools, ruling that "any effect on those students remaining in the public-school system is purely speculative."

By contrast, when Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson proposed to extend Milwaukee's five-year-old voucher plan, which already includes nonsectarian private schools, to parochial schools as well, the proposal got tied up in court fights over the constitutional separation of church and state.

In more than a dozen other states, voucher proposals that would include religious schools have foundered in the state legislatures. But if Cleveland survives the almost inevitable Supreme Court challenge, voucher plans that cover religious-school tuitions are sure to spread fast. And the institutions best positioned to benefit from that revolution will be [Roman] Catholic schools, the nation's largest private system and by far the most likely alternative for inner-city parents.

In Cleveland, for instance, of the 48 private schools eligible for that city's voucher program, 31 are [Roman] Catholic. And as Americans have started to re-examine the virtues of classroom discipline, values- based teaching and a core curriculum, parochial schools have come back into fashion. A Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup survey shows that since 1993 the percentage of Americans who support the idea of private-school vouchers has grown from 24% to 36%. "Issues that were off the table three years ago are suddenly being discussed all over the country," says Sol Stern, a journalist who once worked for Ramparts, the long-departed leftist monthly.

Now aligned with the more conservative Manhattan Institute, Stern recently published a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece praising [Roman] Catholic schools for challenging "the public-school monopoly, constantly reminding us that the neediest kids are educable and that spending extravagant sums of money isn't the answer." The annual per-pupil cost of Catholic-school students, says Stern, is $2,500, about a third of what it is in New York City public schools.

Not long after Stern's article appeared, New York City schools opened with a crisis of overcrowding brought on by rising immigration and lower dropout rates. As the newspapers filled with stories of 91,000 surplus students and classes crammed into hallways and spaces not intended for learning, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani moved to take up a standing offer from the New York archdiocese to accept 1,000 public-school students from the bottom 5% of academic achievers. The city would pay their tuition, and the students, whatever their faith, would be expected to take religious instruction.

At first Giuliani, who attended parochial schools, gave signs he would go for this deal. When that caused a predictable church-state uproar, Giuliani backed off. Instead he announced a plan to raise several million dollars in private funds to finance scholarships to Roman Catholic and other religious schools. "The educational system needs as many alternatives as possible," says Giuliani. "We need to do more than throw money at the board of education." His compromise plan defused the constitutional issue but left bruised feelings.

"Why can't the private sector raise money for public schools?" asks Katherine Masi, a parent who is a member of a local New York school board. "What we need are new buildings." Says eighth-grader Melisa Figueroa:

"I understand how it might help, but the problems in public schools are still going to be there." On the presidential campaign trail, Bob Dole has been promoting a plan to give 4 million low- and middle-income students vouchers worth $1,000 or $1,500 and usable for public, private or parochial schools. States and the Federal Government would split the $5 billion cost.

While dead set against using public money to send children to private school, the White House supports a form of school choice in which parents could shop among competing public schools. That means magnet schools, which offer enhanced programs, or the independent "charter" schools, now found in many states, which set their own rules in matters like what to teach and how to spend money, but are subject to government oversight and evaluation. Charter schools have been warily approved by the teachers unions that strongly support Bill Clinton. But the same unions furiously oppose private-school vouchers. For one thing, they fear that a privatized world would mean lower pay for teachers. In [Roman] Catholic schools faculty salaries are sometimes 20% below those in surrounding public schools.

Voucher opponents also argue that in a nation worried about the fraying of its common ties, public money for private instruction would bring on a patchwork of taxpayer-supported ideological enclaves--not just Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist, but schools arranged by black and white separatists and one-of-a-kind cults, all producing students who could be strangers (and worse) to one another.

"There will be Farrakhan schools and probably Ku Klux Klan schools," says Albert Shanker, father figure of the American Federation of Teachers, the smaller of the two national teachers unions. "We're starting to move down the road of Quebec and Bosnia."

On the other hand, many urban public schools are already a war zone, and it is hard to dispute the data that show parochial schools to be the best hope in a bad neighborhood.

In the U.S. the Roman Catholic Church operates 8,293 elementary and secondary schools with 2.6 million students, about half the number of their peak years in the mid-to-late 1960s.

Due in part to a simultaneous decline in Catholic religious vocations, priests and nuns are largely gone from the classroom, replaced by lay professionals who now make up more than 85% of parochial-school personnel. But while enrollment has declined, academic performance has not.

Numerous studies show that Catholic-school kids do better than their public-school counterparts in reading and math. A 1990 report by the Rand Corp., for instance, found that low-income parochial- school students averaged 803 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, compared with a 642 average in regional public schools. The Catholic-school hierarchy is counting on the spread of vouchers to reverse a long drop in enrollments. Already, non-Catholics make up 13.2% of Catholic-school enrollment, thanks to parents who know a good thing when they see it.

The reasons for the parochial schools' success are disputed. Catholic schools can be more selective than the public system, so they may end up with a student body more likely to succeed. What everyone agrees on is that the parents of parochial-school children are more involved in the education of their children. One hope behind the Cleveland voucher program, says Bert Holt, who administers it, is that it will draw more parents into an active relationship.

Catholic schools are famous for imposing the kind of discipline that a lot of public-school teachers can only dream about. Parochial schools are free to reject applicants with a history as troublemakers. "If a child has a disciplinary problem or problems with drugs or weapons, they can just say no on the spot," says Valerie E. Lee, co-author of Catholic Schools and the Common Good. They can also expel unmanageable students more easily than public schools, which must observe a range of legal niceties that don't apply to the private sector. At the public school where Anthony Wiggins used to teach English, seventh-graders stole his car. That persuaded him to move over to St. Adalbert's, though he had to take a $10,000 pay cut.

Parochial schools have a better record of getting children whose parents did not attend college to take pre-college courses, like advanced math. According to Diane Ravitch, author of National Standards in American Education: A Citizen's Guide, their secret is no secret: a core curriculum.

Whether they get to assign them to more refugees from the public schools depends on the U.S. Supreme Court, which is sure to address the question of religious-school vouchers, very possibly in a case growing out of the Cleveland program. Although it still gives no sign of approving direct government payments to sectarian schools, the court in recent years has begun to define rules that might allow parents to pass along government money, so long as the funds are not targeted at any particular denomination and are available to public, private or parochial schools--all tests that Cleveland's plan seems designed to meet.

Should public money flow to parochial schools? That's a vexing question that both courts and the rest of us still have to decide. But should public schools be a little more like their Catholic counterparts? On that point just about everybody can say amen.

- Reported by Ann Blackman/Washington, Julie Grace/Cleveland and Richard N. Ostling and Elaine Rivera/New York

-END QUOTE- Time Inc. September 23, 1996 VOL. 148 NO 14